Rosh Hashana: A spiritual and practical guide to the Jewish New Year

Why does the Jewish New Year start in September? Why is it celebrated for two days? Why do some Jews wear white for Rosh Hashana? And what’s with the shofar?

For the first time in their young lives, I’m taking my two children — my 5-year-old daughter and my son, who just turned 4 — to Rosh Hashana services this year. Even though I’m certain it’s going to be impossible for them to sit still that long in the synagogue. Even though both my kids are convinced they’re Muslim. Even though I’m Jewish but not particularly religious.

I’m taking them so they can feel a connection to the Jewish people — whether they end up embracing Judaism or not. I’m taking them in the hopes that the words and melodies and meaning of the day will penetrate their hearts and that, maybe, when they’re older, something will be stirred when they encounter Hebrew or the Jewish holidays.

But I’m also going because I realize that, no matter how much I think I know about the holiday, there’s always something new to learn, despite the fact that I was born and raised Jewish and that I lived, for the better part of a decade in Israel — where I took citizenship, learned Hebrew and studied at a secular yeshiva, a secular religious school. Whenever I think I have my head completely wrapped around this holiday, some new meaning, some additional nuance emerges, floating up into my consciousness, leaving me in awe once again.

Here’s the holiday as I understand it now:

What is Rosh Hashana? 

Translated as “head of the year” (rosh=head; ha=the; shana=year), the holiday marks the beginning of the Jewish new year. This Rosh Hashana ushers in Hebrew year 5782. (Click this link to learn how to say Rosh Hashana the American way and the Israeli way.) 

But the holiday is much more than simply turning over the Hebrew calendar. 

Rosh Hashana comes immediately after the month of Elul, which is a period of introspection to prepare us for the High Holy Days. During Elul, we say that “the King is in the field,” meaning that God is dwelling among us, reaching out to us, drawing us nearer — and that, similarly, we should be turning our hearts and minds to the divine.

During this month, religious Jews blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, a sound that reminds us of the upcoming holidays, awakening our souls to do the spiritual accounting and emotional work to prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Special prayers are also recited throughout the month of Elul. 

At sundown on Monday, Sept. 6, Elul will end and the new month of Tishrei will begin and, with it, Rosh Hashana.  

Not only does Rosh Hashana mark the new year, it is also the beginning of the High Holy Days — Yamim Noraim, “days of awe” — that culminate with Yom Kippur, which will begin at sundown on Sept. 15. It is believed that God created Adam and Eve on Rosh Hashana and that they sinned — and were judged and were pardoned — on the same day. In a sense, we’re all being recreated, rebirthed, (and judged) during the High Holy Days. Unsurprisingly, renewal is a big theme of the period.

Jews believe that, during Rosh Hashana, God opens three books and decides our fate for the coming year. The righteous are inscribed into the Book of Life, the wicked into the Book of Death. And those who are neither totally righteous nor totally wicked — which is to say, most of us — are left in limbo as God weighs our deeds and makes his judgment. 

Members of the Jewish community in Park City gather on Sept. 24, 2014, in Temple Har Shalom to celebrate the new year. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

There’s a Jewish liturgical poem that sums this process up beautifully and far better than I can. Written in Europe in the 11th or 12th century, Unetaneh Tokef, “Let us cede power,” is a part of Rosh Hashana services in any synagogue. The extremely moving poem begins, “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

(Read the full poem here. Unetaneh Tokef is also part of Yom Kippur services; listen to Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire?” — a version of the poem — here).

That’s why, in addition to wishing one another shana tova, a good year, or shanah tovah u’metukah — a good and sweet year — during the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, even the most secular Jews will tell each other “gmar chatima tova.” It translates literally to “good final signature” or a “good final sealing.” In other words, “May you be sealed into the Book of Life.” 

Some Jews will also do extra mitzvot, or good deeds, during this period in hopes of tipping the scales in their favor. 

Why do Jews celebrate the new year in September (or sometimes in October)?

This is a tricky one. There is a connection to the spring holiday of Passover, which is also considered a new year (we actually have four new years though the numerical year changes only on Rosh Hashana). Some say we owe the timing of this fall holiday to our sojourn in ancient Egypt, our exodus from which is marked by Passover.

Why does the date of Rosh Hashana change every year?

In short, because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar that predates the Gregorian calendar, which is solar. Periodically, however, there are adjustments made to account for the discrepancy between the solar and lunar calendars to keep the Jewish holiday schedule in sync with the seasons. (While the Muslim calendar is also lunar, it doesn’t include the same sort of adjustments — that’s why Ramadan is observed in January one year then in June several years later.)

The Jewish concept of days is also different than that of the Gregorian calendar: Jewish days begin and end at sunset. This is why Shabbat and our holidays — including Rosh Hashana — all begin and end in the evening. 

(This book is a good basic read on the rhythm of the Jewish calendar). 

Why is Rosh Hashana two days long?

Because it takes God a long time to decide all our fates. 

Just kidding. A little Jewish humor for you. 

A classic Israeli answer would be: “It’s complicated.”

Although the Hebrew Bible decrees one day to observe the holiday, Rosh Hashana being two days long is a holdover from ancient times, when someone in Jerusalem needed to actually physically see the moon, declare the beginning of the new month and then needing time get the word out to everyone. Without WhatsApp. 

How do you prepare for the holiday?

In addition to taking spiritual stock or moral inventory during Elul, penitential prayers and poemsselichot or slichot are said in the lead-up to Rosh Hashana. In modern Hebrew, slicha means “Sorry” or “Excuse me”; so you can think of selichot as saying “slicha” to God. Not only do the prayers and poems focus on repentance, but they also elucidate God’s 13 attributes of mercy — a powerful reminder of the gentleness and grace, chesed, with which we should approach others. (Read more here about the 13 attributes of mercy and the broader significance of the number 13 in Judaism).

Judaism teaches that God can only forgive our transgressions against him but not the wrongdoings we have visited upon our fellow man. So, some Jews approach friends and family members in this preparatory time to ask forgiveness for hurting them in the year coming to a close. 

We also get ready for the holiday by making a lot of food! 

Observant Jews are barred under religious law from preparing food for the second day on the first day of Rosh Hashana. So enough food has to be made ahead of the holiday.

What do you eat? Is there a Rosh Hashana seder like on Passover?

Historically, Ashkenazi Jews — who come from Eastern Europe and who dominate American Jewry — dipped apples in honey and had a festive meal that included a few symbolic foods, but did not conduct formal seders with specific foods and prayers to accompany those dishes.

But, in recent years, thanks to the influence in Israel of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from other parts of the world, Rosh Hashana seders are becoming more popular on both sides of the ocean. In fact, nowadays, one can find Rosh Hashana seder plates reminiscent of those used for Passover — something that was unheard of a decade ago. (My hope is that these seders will eventually become and remain the standard among all Jewry.) 

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If you go to one of these Rosh Hashana seders, you will find on the table many simanim, signs for an auspicious year: apples and honey, the head of a fish or another animal (I know vegetarians and vegans who have used a head of lettuce or cabbage, instead), dates, beets or Swiss chard, leeks, squash or pumpkin, pomegranate and black-eyed peas (rubia or lubia). Prayers accompany each of the symbolic foods

A round challah — the braided bread that we break on Shabbat — is essential; honey cake is extremely common. 

How else do you observe the holiday? 

In addition to the festive meal or seder, women light candles — as they do for Shabbat — in the evening of both days and recite the appropriate blessings.

And just like on Shabbat, we are not supposed to do any work for the two days of the holiday.

Some Jews go to synagogue for Rosh Hashana. For many secular Jews, Rosh Hashana morning and Yom Kippur morning are the only times they go to synagogue. 

Jews are supposed to hear the shofar on both days of the holiday and so, at Rosh Hashana services, the shofar will be blown by someone called a ba’al tekiah, a master blaster. The shofar is made out of a ram’s horn and has deep religious significance for Jews, symbolizing a number of different ideas, including spiritual awakening.

In fact, hearing the shofar is such a crucial part of the holiday that Chabad — a branch of Orthodox Judaism known for its outreach efforts to other Jews — makes house calls to sound it for those Jews who can’t make it to some sort of Rosh Hashana gathering.

Chief among the prayers recited at Rosh Hashana services, is Avinu Malkeinu, which translates as Our Father, Our King. Rosh Hashana is also considered to be God’s coronation, the time that God is crowned as King and we acknowledge his providence over us and our lives. 

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In the afternoon of the first day of the holiday, many Jews head to the nearest body of water— preferably one with fish — to do tashlich, a symbolic ritual of casting off of sins. (Check out this beautiful discussion of the tradition of tashlich tailored especially for women).

Some people use breadcrumbs, which will be eaten by the fish. some pick up something from nature — like pebbles or leaves— to toss into the water. And others, especially parents with young children, get creative about it, using things like paper boats to send sins away. (One year, when I lived in Tel Aviv, I walked to the Mediterranean — which was just a few blocks away from my apartment — and dropped a Hebrew list of my sins into the sea). 

Why do some Jews wear white for Rosh Hashana? 

Though not all Jews wear white for Rosh Hashana, some do. The meaning is multifaceted and, in some ways, contradictory: white at once symbolizes both purity as well as tachrichim, the white death shroud that Jews use for burial. While we want to signal God of our purity and that we are clean of misdeeds, the white also reminds us of our mortality and the life and death import of the High Holy Days. 

If you want to get cosmic and mystical about it all, you could conceptualize Rosh Hashana as the very beginning of the process of a symbolic death — hence the white clothes — and rebirth, a process that is completed when Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, draws to a close 10 days later

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